Growing A Film Industry
by Kenneth Lyen
Last year, popular British comedies like "Love Actually" and "Calendar Girls", took in £742 million (= US$1.36 billion) from the UK box office. These British films and others, took in an additional US$1 billion from the American box office. This is a tremendous boost to the British film industry, which now employs over 57,000 people. Thanks to the expertise and film-friendly environment, the UK is now considered to be one of the best countries to make a film.
Singapore also aspires to be an internationally successful filmmaking nation. The Singapore Film Commission was set up specifically to foster our local film industry. Millions of dollars are being pumped into the industry. This includes grants for script development, a national screenwriting competition, grants for making short films, incubating promising feature films, co-production with overseas film companies, grants for overseas companies luring them to make films in Singapore, and travel grants for Singapore filmmakers to promote their films at overseas film festivals.
Sounds wonderful, doesnt it? So why isnt the Singapore film industry thriving? There are several reasons.
First and foremost is the excessive censorship. Films made in Singapore may never be seen, or not seen in their entirety, by Singapore audiences. Even films like "Schindlers List", "The Last Emperor", "Carrie", or "Four Weddings and a Funeral", have nude scenes deleted, and DVD sales banned. Just this week, the Singapore government banned the popular Taiwanese film "Formula 17" because it depicted gays. Our local filmmakers have suffered a similar fate. Local films like "Meepok Man", "Pain", "Bugis Street", "15", and others, have either been banned or severely cut. As a result, there is no way the filmmakers can recoup their investments through box-office takings or video sales in Singapore.
Unfortunately censorship has a more insidious effect on the film industry. It distorts screenwriting. I know, because Im one. Screenwriters like myself are persuaded to remain politically correct (otherwise we might not get paid). We are prevailed upon to write scripts that do not transgress our film censors. This means we second guess what might offend them. Self-censorship is pervasive, and permeates all levels of film production, affecting the directors, producers, and distributors. The bottom line is that if we make a film that is cut or banned, we may never get investors to support us in future, plus we get put on the bureaucrats black list.
The second problem is underfunding. The film commission caps their grants to the feature films they support, and currently it is set at Singapore $250,000 (= US$145,000). Co-funding films with foreign film companies get double the amount of funding, which is capped at US$290,000. Any filmmaker of any calibre will burst out laughing. How can you make a decent film with such paltry sums? The amount is extremely low, even for Singapore standards. The authorities might point out that The Blair Witch Project was made for US$25,000, and grossed over US$140 million at the box office. What they do not realise is that The Blair Witch Project is a freak one-off success story. Inadequate funding forces producers to cut corners, lowering production values, and the net result, is a severely compromised film.
The third problem is a basic lack of understanding about the nature of the creative process by the bureaucrats who administer the funds. Filmmakers need to be trusted, and given a wide latitude to make films that they consider to be artistic. Too often films funded by the film commission are evaluated less by their artistic merits, and more by their box office takings. Hence risks and experimentation are discouraged, and the film industry's growth and maturation will remain stunted.
We dream to be a great filmmaking nation. But to enable us to achieve that potential, we need to be given the freedom to create. And yes. A couple of million bucks would definitely help.